Puff by puff, inch by inch
"Don't forget the cigarettes for Tommy," ran one patriotic British ditty during the first world war. American generals told their government they needed "tobacco as much as bullets"; charities sent cigarettes to the front-line. After the war, non-smokers seemed odd. The crime writer, Agatha Christie, even apologised for not smoking. She had tried many times, she said, but just could not like it.
In this solidly researched, interesting and only occasionally strident book, Christopher Snowdon, an independent researcher, documents the cigarette's journey from patriotic necessity to pariah status. There had always been those who found smoking "loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs," as James I put it in 1604. Some despots, in Hindustan and Persia, went further, slitting smokers' lips or pouring molten lead down their throats. American prohibitionists claimed that smoking led to moral decay; Nazis that it was a decadent Jewish habit. But few non-bigots thought that their personal distaste warranted limiting the freedom of others.
Once the awful effects of smoking on health became clear, however, smokers could be harassed for their own good. And the notion of passive smoking allowed campaigners to go even further, and seek to stamp out smoking almost everywhere. In America, lawyers got involved. "Flies to honey, vampires to blood - but we've got a glut of lawyers out there just looking for someone to sue," said John Banzhaf, the founder of ASH, an anti-smoking group. The Master Settlement Agreement of 1997, which cost tobacco firms $246 billion, much of it to be spent on anti-smoking measures, meant that after decades of barefaced lying, Big Tobacco found itself outspent and outmanoeuvred.
Campaigners shamelessly ramped up the evidence that the vice harmed others, and attacked anyone who said otherwise. "The effect of other people smoking in my presence is so small it doesn't worry me," declared Sir Richard Doll, who with Sir Austin Bradford Hill had proved in the 1950s that smokers were killing themselves. Anti-smoking activists dismissed the eminent scientist as a crank and a tool of the tobacco industry.
"No one is seriously talking about a complete ban on smoking in pubs and restaurants," said the director of ASH (UK) in 1998, adding that the suggestion was a "scaremongering story by a tobacco front group." In June 2005 Britain's public-health minister described talk of such a ban as "false speculation". Parliament voted it into law just eight months later. Even then campaigners called for further illiberalism, citing everything from litter to toxins from cigarette butts leaching into groundwater and the harm smoking allegedly does to birds.
Other activists now follow anti-smokers' lead. Flying, drinking bottled water, wearing perfume and burning wood have all been called "the new smoking"; terms like "passive obesity" and "second-hand drinking" do the rounds. "Today it's smoking. Will high-fat foods be next?" asked a tobacco firm in an advertisement in the 1990s. No doubt the ad seemed ridiculously alarmist at the time.
Puritanism disguised as science
I'm sitting in the corner of a bar, talking to author Christopher Snowdon and doing something almost unheard of in Britain these days: enjoying a cigarette under cover. Admittedly, it is a pretty open-air kind of 'under cover' in a specially adapted part of the Boisdale restaurant and bar near London's Victoria station; still, the novelty value is not lost on me.
We are here because Snowdon is launching his book this evening, a history of the anti-smoking movement that has been three-and-a-half years in the making. One of the main reasons he wrote it, he tells me, is because 'I wanted to read it. I went into the library looking for a history of the anti-smoking movement, assuming there would be one, and there wasn't.' Instead, he had to wade through many other books on the history of tobacco, picking out snippets here and there and trying to build up a picture of the chequered history of those who want to see the evil weed confined to the ashtray of history.
While Snowdon seems happy to have put the book to bed at last, he also clearly enjoyed the challenge. 'It's an ideal subject for a historian. Firstly, because it's never been done before and it's rare to find a major contemporary topic that's never been done before. Secondly, because you've got eight million documents online in America thanks to the efforts of various anti-smoking groups. That's an enormous resource that is virtually untapped. Thirdly, history is all about trusting your sources and, with this issue, you can't. It's got to the point where the tobacco companies and their opponents are as bad as each other.'
The result is Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, a book with a full-on, in-your-face title that points squarely to a recurring theme of the anti-smoking crusade: the 'slippery slope'. Whenever a compromise is made in relation to smoking - when it is restricted in public, for example, or the second-hand smoke thesis becomes more readily accepted - then the very uncompromising zealots behind the anti-smoking campaigns find a new way to demand even more restrictions.
Snowdon points to the debates about the mandatory wearing of motorcycle helmets and car seatbelts in the 1970s as a turning point. Even then, parliamentary debates were concerned not with the potential benefits of wider helmet and seatbelt use - they were regarded as obvious - but with concern that such impositions would be used as an argument for further legislation on unrelated areas of life. Similarly, while Snowdon is clear that active smoking is 'definitely' going to increase an individual's risk of various diseases, one of his main concerns is the way that freedom has become provisional, with the state now justifying all kinds of bans and restraints for 'our own good'.
You might think that governments have been a little illiberal on tobacco in recent years, but their illiberalism is nothing compared with the reaction of rulers centuries ago. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Snowdon writes, there were 'draconian laws...to eliminate tobacco use from Sicily to China'. The czar of Russia flogged first offenders and had their nostrils slit; a second tobacco offence would result in execution. In China, the emperor Chongzhen ordered the beheading of tobacco importers. Shah Abbas of Persia punished both importers and users with death, while his son added the touch of executing them by pouring molten lead down their throats.
Yet there were many who also believed in tobacco's medicinal qualities, and doctors prescribed it for a variety of illnesses from bronchitis to smallpox. The diarist Samuel Pepys apparently made sure he had a packet when the Great Plague hit London in the 1660s and it seems that tobacco was regarded as a vital protection in much the same way that Tamiflu is today.
But it was the psychological effect of nicotine that was always more important. Tolstoy asked 'Why do gamblers almost all smoke?', along with 'prostitutes and madmen', while women who lead a 'regular life' avoid tobacco. Indeed, smoking has long been associated with those who are impulsive and less concerned with what people think of them.
Tobacco is also popular with soldiers. Soothing, yet stimulating, it is just the ticket for those faced with the possibility of brutal death and horrifying injury. Snowdon quotes the US general John Pershing, who was asked what was the key to winning the First World War. 'I answer tobacco as much as bullets', he said, before urgently cabling Washington: 'We must have thousands of tons of it without delay.' By one reckoning, 95 per cent of the military used tobacco in some form during the First World War.
Nicotine - named after the sixteenth-century French diplomat Jean Nicot who popularised tobacco in northern Europe - is a quite peculiar substance, as Snowdon explains in his book. In small doses, it provides a stimulating rush, but in larger doses the effect is soothing and relaxing. Cigarettes are the perfect delivery system for nicotine, providing an instant 'hit' - one enhanced by the fact that the tobacco in cigarettes is cured to make the smoke more readily absorbed by the lungs. No wonder it has been the self-medication of choice for the mentally disturbed.
Quite apart from despotic rulers, there have long been people desperate to outlaw smoking. Often, they have been offended by the smoke and smell, but the reaction against tobacco has also been the focus for all sorts of reactionary arguments. Samuel Solly, writing in the Lancet in 1857, declared that he knew of 'no single vice which does so much harm as smoking' and suggested that those 'troubled in mind' should be 'submitting to the rod, and rising strengthened from the chastisement'.
Where today it is children who are often the focus of anti-smoking campaigns, in the past it was women, who were deemed particularly vulnerable to the deleterious effects of tobacco. In 1920, the US Surgeon General advised women to avoid smoking as 'a woman's nervous system is more highly organised than a man's'. Others were concerned that if women took to smoking it would undermine the Anglo-Saxon racial stock. As one senator's wife declared in 1925, smoking amongst women would inevitably lead to 'physical bankruptcy and race degeneracy'.
If there is a theme running through Snowdon's book, it is of anti-smoking campaigns driven by Puritanical fervour clashing with the individual right to enjoy smoking unhindered. The big change was the discovery - first made properly by Fritz Lickint in 1929 in Germany and confirmed by his compatriot Franz Muller - that lung cancer cases were almost always smokers. Such 'Nazi' science was utterly ignored by the rest of the world, but it only confirmed Hitler's hatred of smoking (despite his two-packs-a-day habit in his youth).
In Britain during the same period, the voice in the wilderness railing against smoking was Lennox Johnston, a Glasgow doctor. Johnston was a man zealously convinced of the dangers of tobacco, becoming a prolific letter writer and experimenter (often on himself). After bashing his head against a medical brick wall for years, he finally had a study published in the Lancet in 1942 - to zero acclaim. It was to his utter frustration that when the time came for properly funded research into the matter, the money was given to Austin Bradford Hill and his assistant, Richard Doll, whose famous survey of doctors and smoking became the first confirmation outside of Germany of the link between smoking and lung cancer.
While Hill and Doll's conclusions have been confirmed time and again, it is the link between 'passive' smoking and ill-health that has driven the debate in recent years. Anti-tobacco campaigns largely failed to make much headway when they simply called for prohibition or for a smoke-free atmosphere. As long as smoking only involved potential harm to the smoker himself, the irritation felt by some non-smokers was never considered enough to justify intervention and the restriction of people's smoking habits.
Then, changing the focus from harm-to-smokers to the alleged dangers of second-hand smoke for everyone proved crucial in building momentum for a variety of smoking bans. Yet, as Snowdon writes, the evidence of second-hand harm has always been flimsy. In other areas, doctors and researchers have been quick to dismiss studies that have found links between, for example, abortion and breast cancer, on the correct grounds that the increased risk found - 70 per cent - was simply too small to be captured by the blunt instrument of epidemiology. However, much smaller increases in risk have been used as proof that passive smoking causes lung cancer.
Snowdon shows through a comprehensive survey of the passive smoking evidence that very few of the studies conducted to date have shown a statistically significant link between passive smoking and ill health. But that has not prevented some borderline insane claims being made that second-hand smoke is, if anything, even deadlier than the stuff sucked into the lungs of smokers themselves.
The fact that such studies have led to prohibitive legislation should be of concern to everyone, even those who dislike smoking. As he lights a second cigarette, Snowdon tells me: 'Essentially, the argument is: smoking is bad and therefore anything you can do to reduce smoking is fair game. There's very little accountability for the people who've been pumping out this information over the past 20 years.'
Having promoted a fast-and-loose approach to scientific evidence, the anti-smoking lobby thinks anything goes when it comes to restricting smoking. 'The argument has been expanded to other areas because of the slippery slope', says Snowdon. 'The epidemiological effects in passive smoking studies are so tiny that if you accept the studies around passive smoking then you have to accept almost any study.' The result of that would be an assault on a variety of personal choices, from binge drinking (and even 'passive drinking') to eating bacon sandwiches. With ever-expanding legislation and billion-dollar lawsuits, the anti-smoking campaign has become the template for junk-science lobbying and courtroom carpetbagging on a whole raft of issues.
While epidemics of 'ill health' are invented, real problems are often ignored. Shockingly, in 2007, only five per cent of the US National Cancer Institute's funding was spent on studying lung cancer, despite the fact that it causes one-in-three cancer deaths in America. As far as the medical establishment is concerned, it seems that finding a treatment for lung cancer has taken a back seat to interventionist, smoker-bashing health campaigns. According to Cancer Research UK, just seven per cent of those with lung cancer will survive for five years after their diagnosis. If you've got lung cancer, the message is: it's your own fault.
Snowdon is once more in demand and dashes off to sign books. I light up again. Funny how pursuing what should be nothing more than a bad habit can seem like a single, raised finger to those who want to restrict our personal freedom and micromanage our lives.
Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A review
I read. I read a lot. In fact, I just worked out that I have read over 2,000 books in my near half-century on this planet. I calculated that number by estimating one book per week, but sometimes I read two or three. 2,000 sounds fair, and I am hoping that having read quite so many books that it will help me with this review.
This is the first book I have ever been asked to review and I have been putting it off for a couple of reasons. The first is that I did not want to finish reading Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. I did not want to rush it. The second is that I was worried about getting this review right. Whisky lovers will tell you that to rush a good single malt is a criminal offence. Wine lovers will insist that to rush a good Merlot or Chiraz is sacrilege. I feel the same way about books. Authors cannot write without leaving some part of themselves indelibly stamped in the work that they create. Chris does this admirably. His fair-mindedness is a thing to behold, and his ability to entertain as well as educate, is a precious asset.
I should tell you that my criteria for continuing to read a book depends wholly on the first chapter. I need to be gripped early.
So it is with Velvet Glove, Iron Fist.
Chris Snowdon has achieved something quite remarkable with his book. He has written a book on the history of anti-smoking that I am convinced will appeal to smokers and non-smokers as well as anti-smokers. Over the last five years I have never read any work that successfully appeals to all of the combatants in this needless war on the humble tobacco leaf. Chris has used a neutral tone, and at times, such is his gift, I wondered who he had written the book for.
Thankfully, it's for all of us.
Chris rings my history bell by providing a comprehensive look at the way things were. He reminds us that these modern day smoker bans are nothing new. The antis may get a little aroused to learn that hot lead was poured down the throats of smokers in the not too dim and distant past. Anti-smokers were psychopaths just a couple of hundred years ago. Some things, it would appear, never change. Just three days ago, one of our caring NHS trainers, Jane Deville-Almond, said of smokers, "They'll just have to die". How nice.
Once we have the scene set for us, we are taken on a tour of the science. This fantastically well-researched ride carries us along for chapter after chapter of revelations. Forgive me for bragging, but I am pretty clued up on this stuff, yet Chris managed to make my jaw drop with fact after fact after fact. He also provides a handy reference to the "studies" that convinced the cerebrally challenged, and he thoughtfully tells us about epidemiology, and why it fails to convince anyone with a modicum of common sense.
Chris ends his wonderful work with a stark warning: the road to prohibition will end in failure. This fad will end as the zealots find a new outlet for their hatred. Work has already begun on demonising food and alcohol. In fact, if something gives you even an iota of pleasure, the seriously deranged will be along directly to stamp it out. Not that Chris couches it in those terms. His view on this is as balanced and carefully stated as everything else he reveals. An achievement of note, which I know you will agree with when you read the book. Velvet Glove, Iron Fist is easy to read, and easy to understand. Most books on this complex subject are mired in maths, alive with alchemy, steeped in superstition, and about as much fun as a fire at an old folks home. Not so in this case. You will enjoy every single page.
So there it is. A rarity indeed. A book with no weaknesses. It passed every test I could throw at it. I was in its thrall from page 1 to page 415. It thoroughly deserves a place in the bestseller lists.
Velvet Glove, Iron Fist is simply stunning, and I am convinced that it will endure for years to come.
Anti-smokers brought to book
I can't speak highly enough of this extraordinary labour of love. I've read many books on smoking and this is best by far. It's a superb read. To use that old cliche, it's a page-turner, which is some achievement. It's packed with information but it's also very readable - serious yet hugely entertaining.
Better still, this is no fire-breathing polemic. The amount of research that has gone into it is staggering. And the tone is moderate throughout which is important because it will appeal to a far wider readership.
Velvet Glove, Iron Fist
Michael J. McFadden
British author Christopher Snowdon has written a book that will rank in history up next to Jacob Sullum's For Your Own Good and Richard Kluger's massive Ashes to Ashes. It may even end up outshining both previous works as his combination of excellent research skills combines with an engaging writing style that makes Velvet Glove, Iron Fist both more readable and more fulfilling than either of them.
At roughly 400 pages, Snowdon doesn't present the sheer mass of information that Kluger's Pulitzer Prize winning Ashes does, but his focus on the antismoking movement (as opposed to Kluger's wider ranging examination of the tobacco industry and its battles) manages to convey far more information about this one important aspect of the subject and does it in a far more accessible manner. His exacting care for references and facts duplicates Sullum's, but although Sullum's style is readable and enjoyable I believe he has been outdone by his British counterpart.
Velvet Glove will be particularly attractive to British and European audiences as they suffer under their imported bans because, while Snowdon provides a comprehensive overview of the American antismoking movement, he pays special attention to the building and history of that movement across the sea. Far more than Sullum, he shows the international aspect of a Crusade that has clearly taken on global proportions with the UN's World Health Organization's "Framework Convention on Tobacco Control" which is becoming, almost unnoticed by the world's press and people, the first true example of a "World Law" under which nations have surrendered their sovereignty to the world body.
While not as strongly focused on Antismokers' day-to-day tricks and techniques or on the dubious scientific deceptions underlying smoking bans as my own Dissecting Antismokers' Brains, Chris Snowdon does not neglect these areas and on the contrary has done an excellent job of showing how they form an integral part of the history. His approach embodies a strong neutrality that will win him friends and enemies on both sides of the issue, but I believe that overall, that neutrality only serves to underscore the damning facts that will eventually bring judgement against what historian Jeremy Richards has called "America's Second Great Prohibition Experiment."
As Richards has pointed out, the "New Prohibition" is smarter than the old one, seeking to use the tools of propaganda, media manipulation of science, and the classic human weakness of loving to have someone to hate rather than using the simple force of law for its purposes. The "New Prohibition" may have arguably improved the health of many by reducing the prevalence of smoking, but the social and psychological costs involved are tremendous and very deliberately uncalculated.
Snowdon's work will provide some basis for that eventual calculation to be totted up, no matter how diligently the Winston Smiths of the world try to rewrite history. I am proud to go on record in giving this book a fully deserved five stars.
Snowdon book is a must-read
Author Christopher Snowdon has given us a sneak preview of his book Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. It's a must-read for all. Mister Snowdon's website has in the past year offered selected chapters for viewing on the internet. These are most intriguing and we can now say that the complete manuscript meets with highest expectations. FORCES recommends Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, now available via advance order from his website, to smokers and non-smokers alike. We are, by now, all affected by the ever-expanding nanny state, internationally at this point.
This is an important book. Privately published offerings such as Michael J. McFadden's Dissecting Antismokers' Brains and Vincent-Riccardo Di Pierri's Rampant Anti-smoking Signifies Grave Danger: Materialism Out of Control have previously provided crucially valuable perspectives, while Jacob Sullum's lauded For Your Own Good: The Anti-smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health warned a wider audience of a growing menace. Snowdon's book, coming five to ten years after these, confirms all their predictions of unceasing regulatory encroachment into the present, while providing historical perspectives on Puritanical and prohibitionist movements of the past, wrapping all into a compelling view of the “anti” hysteria afflicting our times. Popular awareness of this threat, as the burgeoning activism against it chronicled here at FORCES attests, has finally taken root, and now grows exponentially.
Historian Snowdon's treatise can therefore be seen as a natural product of this inevitable awakening to the falseness of today's viciously divisive prophets. However dressed - be it in the smart buckled shoes of Colonial New England, or the corseted propriety of the Women's Christian Temperance Union of Carry Nation or the contemporaneous Anti-cigarette League of Lucy Page Gaston, or in the stern black jackboots of the flamingly anti-smoking Third Reich, or the dull grey flannel of Joe McCarthy and the dour House Un-American Affairs Committee, or the same as worn by a Strom Thurmond or George Wallace - however accoutered and however acclaimed, however self-assured and self-righteous, however much viewed as socially and politically correct, no matter how successful in their ideological heydays - society's bigots, fanatics, and tyrants always and necessarily come to be recognized and reviled by the public at large. Such is the case again today as ever. The time has come for humanity at large to reassert itself and Christopher Snowdon has written a book for this time.